It’s natural to start finger-pointing as Pittsburgh slips dangerously close to missing the playoffs. Have some of the Penguins’ recent trades come back to haunt them?
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ playoff chances look grimmer by the day. They took a massive hit over the weekend with deflating losses to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers.
A thought that has crossed my mind, watching Pittsburgh’s top-heavy squad take bad penalties and struggle to convert chances in recent weeks: these guys miss Jordan Staal. They were a different team with him as their third-line center. He was a big, strong, two-way presence who could break open a game with a shorthanded rush. Few teams in the league had that caliber of player that far down the depth chart.
The Pens had to move Staal in 2012 after he rejected Ray Shero’s 10-year offer, and they did well to land Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin and the pick that yielded Derrick Pouliot. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use Staal’s skill set right about now.
Interestingly, though, the Hurricanes would be far better off with Sutter, Dumoulin and Pouliot, wouldn’t they? Staal has been a disaster. He has 30 goals in 173 games as a Cane. He had 29 in his rookie season with the Pens alone. He only has, oh, eight years left on a 10-year deal carrying a $6-million cap hit. Woof. Is this a rare trade both GMs involved would admit they want reversed, if we gave them truth serum injections? Oddly enough, that would involve Jim Rutherford trading Staal again. He acquired Staal as Hurricanes GM and now serves as Penguins GM.
It’s fair to wonder if Jordan Staal would reverse the deal if he could, too. The trade, which literally occurred while he was getting married, almost didn’t happen. Staal nearly accepted the Pens’ 10-year deal but was swayed by Canes captain Eric, his brother and best friend, who reasoned that signing long-term with the Penguins would mean they’d never play together.
Then came the rumors from Trib Total Media this past February that Jordan, who has a no-trade clause, would waive it to go back to the Penguins, who were reportedly interested in reacquiring him. Sources close to Jordan indicated he’d waive the clause to become a Penguin again, which made sense considering Eric becomes an unrestricted free agent after next season. Other outlets refuted the rumors of a Jordan Staal deal, claiming Canes GM Ron Francis assured Jordan he wasn’t going anywhere.
Still, add up all the factors – from Staal’s struggles to Carolina’s extended stay in the basement to what looks like an early playoff exit or no playoffs for Pittsburgh – and it sure seems like each team would be better off with the trade undone.
Another Penguins blockbuster either side might opt to reverse with a magic wand: last summer’s swap of James Neal to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
Sit down, knee-jerkers, and assess what each party has brought to his team. Consider what Predators GM David Poile said last August when we spoke about the Neal acquisition, and whether Poile thought Neal was undervalued:
“No, I don’t. I don’t really know that. The thing that was most important for us is that we’re looking to improve our offense and first-line forward players. And he fit that description. That was the main situation. I probably disagree with you a little bit in that we gave up two pretty good players, but we have a guy who scored 40 goals, and that’s exactly what the Predators need.”
Nashville wanted to improve its offense and first-line forward play. Neal has spent a decent chunk of the year on the team’s top unit with Mike Ribeiro and Filip Forsberg, but Neal has 23 goals and 37 points. He’s been a perfectly respectable contributor, but he hasn’t brought that front-line star power Poile sought. Hornqvist has 24 goals and 48 points in 61 games, and Spaling has 26 points to complement his spirited checking.
That’s not to say the Pens have outright won the deal. Hornqvist has “outproduced” Neal – but Hornqvist has spent most of the year flanking Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin and has just one more goal than Neal. Look at what Neal did as Malkin’s triggerman. Over Neal’s final three seasons with the Pens: 88 goals and 178 points in 179 games. An 82-game average of 40 goals and 82 points. So it’s fair to say, then:
1. The Predators have gotten no more production out of Neal, if not less, than they got from Hornqvist and Spaling.
2. The Penguins have gotten less production from Hornqvist and Spaling than they did from Neal.
Neal hasn’t fulfilled the Preds’ need for an elite sniper, and the Pens have lost a guy who was a dynamic fit with Malkin. Think of how potent Pittsburgh was even one year ago. Chris Kunitz clicked with Crosby, and Neal did with Malkin. Kunitz has hit a wall and isn’t Crosby’s linemate these days. Blake Comeau has played on Malkin’s wing as much as anyone. Each superstar center has endured a revolving door of wingers this season.
Hindsight is cheap, yes. But when we see a perennial juggernaut like the Pens start to crumble, it’s time to ask why. It’s difficult to ignore two draft-day deals, two years apart, that involved Rutherford on either end.
And in case you were wondering: Hornqvist, Spaling, Sutter and Pouliot eat up $10.34 million of cap space on Pittsburgh’s roster. Neal and Staal’s combined cap hits: $11 million. The science is obviously not perfect, as Pittsburgh has four players (five once Dumoulin is a full-time NHLer) for the price of two, and Pouliot’s cap hit will increase when his entry-level deal finishes. But the money is negligible enough that salary shouldn’t be to blame for the Penguins’ trades.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin